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Lobos men’s hoops team in mix at top of Mountain West

UNM forward Tim Williams (32) looks toward the hoop during Wednesday's game against New Mexico State in the Pit. (Jim Thompson/Journal)

UNM forward Tim Williams (32) looks toward the hoop during Wednesday’s game against New Mexico State in the Pit.
(Jim Thompson/Journal)

Wait a minute.

Are the Lobos really that good?

Sure it’s only five weeks into the season, but the UNM men’s basketball team might be closing nonconference play as the favorites in the Mountain West. That’s the same team picked sixth in the preseason media poll in the 11-team league after finishing with a 15-16 record last season, including losing nine of its final 10 games.

At the very least, they’re on a short list of teams in that conversation, if as much for their own relative success as for the struggles of the other teams.

The Lobos’ (7-2) solid start to the season seems to have caught everyone off guard but the players themselves.

“Those guys believe a lot of things,” said Lobos coach Craig Neal. “It’s hard to temper them down. I think they think they can play with anybody, but we’ve got a long way to go. That was a realistic pick (in the preseason) because they haven’t played together.”

Neal admitted how quickly his team has come together to be a such a competitive and cohesive unit even snuck up on him.

“Yeah, I’m surprised where they are now,” Neal said. “… I think we’ll be able to compete against anybody we play against. … We’ll see. I mean conference is different.”

Through Thursday, UNM has several bullet points to bolster its case to be considered one of the league favorites so far:

• Highest win percentage despite being the only MWC team to not schedule a non-Division I opponent in the nonconference (all 10 other basketball members play at least two)

• Highest KenPom rating (44) while preseason favorite San Diego State is second at 59

• Highest Sagarin rating (42) while SDSU is second at 58

• Only MWC team with both its offense and defensive KenPom ratings in the top 100 (out of 351 DI teams)

• Highest NCAA.com RPI ranking (38) compared to UNLV’s second highest ranking of 59

“I’m just trying to keep them grounded, but I like the way they compete,” Neal said. “That’s the neat thing and they’re fun to watch.”

And as for that preseason ranking that seems to have allowed them to progress through the first five weeks largely under the radar?

“I wish we were picked sixth every year,” Neal said.

ANOTHER AUSSIE: Keanu Pinder, a 6-foot-8 small forward who plays at Hutchinson (Kan.) Community College and is from Australia, announced Thursday he will play next season at UNM.

He was on an official recruiting trip in Albuquerque for Wednesday night’s home game against NMSU.

Pinder originally committed to play in the Big Ten at Nebraska where he was recruited primarily by current UNM associate head coach Chris Harriman, who is also from Australia. Pinder, whose junior college team is undefeated and ranked No. 1 in the country, played with former Lobo Hugh Greenwood over the summer for Australia’s World University Games team.

His commitment is the fourth for UNM’s class of 2016, joining junior college power forward Connor MacDougall (South Mountain CC in Phoenix) and high school wing players Damien Jefferson (East Chicago, Ind.) and Aher Uguak (Edmonton, Alberta, Canada).

UNM has just two official scholarships scheduled to open this offseason (Devon Williams and J.J. N’Ganga) with a likely third coming by way of Cullen Neal being moved to walk-on status. One more scholarship will have to open up before the start of the 2016-17 season.

Be it for the NBA, injury, discipline or transfers, UNM has averaged 2.7 players leave the program per season with scholarship eligibility remaining, and Neal feels he left the program in a bad position in recent years when he stopped recruiting anticipating every player would be back.

Thursday, he said he’s “99 percent” certain the Lobos are done recruiting for the 2016 class.

DEVON’S SURGERY: Devon Williams, junior who injured his neck in the Nov. 15 game at NMSU and then was diagnosed with spinal stenosis, ending his college playing career, had successful laminectomy surgery Thursday, essentially creating more space for the spinal cord.

INJURY UPDATE: UNM’s “Big Three” of Brown, Cullen Neal and Williams were held out of contact drills at Thursday’s practice. Craig Neal said the three have logged a high number of minutes early in the season and he is simply resting them.

Williams also had a “slight sprain” of his knee suffered in the NMSU win, but finished the game.

“Those three guys have done a lot for us,” Craig Neal said. “… when you play the minutes that they’ve played, you just have to make sure they’re healthy and they’re ready to go.”

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